Category Archives: Memorizing

What’s the Score?

Okay, this is how it all went down…

We were in the middle of the rehearsal and Maestro Suzuki suddenly commented that we, as a chorus, seemed tentative and were frequently late with our entrances. If you ask me, this was because he frequently asked us to start at certain measure numbers and we had to switch to the score for those moments.  (More cynically, sometimes it seemed he accused us of being late or early when I thought we sounded fine.)   He asked us if it would be better for us to have the score in front of us. We all laughed a bit and gave some sort of noncommittal reply about “if you tell us to, we will, but we are used to going without.”

Five minutes later, he stopped us again and told us he preferred that we use our scores.

This was a profound change. The way you sing with a score, I quickly learned, is quite different from the way you sing from memory. For one, you use the score as a crutch, looking at it more often than you ever needed to. Also, it’s HARD to find your place. Too many German and English words on the page to parse, plus four staffs. Reading it AND seeing the conductor is tough. third, there’s the weight of it in your hands as you hold it… Almost a physical barrier between you and the conductor.

So while there was a certain sigh of relief from some corners of the chorus, I think the decision was bittersweet.  Many of us are considering NOT bringing the score on stage, replacing it with just the little prayerbook we originally were given with the words to the chorales.  Then we’d hide the prayerbook in the black folders like a student reading a comic between the pages of his math textbook.  I’m gonna try that at today’s orchestra rehearsal, as a matter of fact, to see if I really can get by without the few spots where looking back at the score is helpful.  It’s not just a badge of courage… I prefer no score for all the reasons mentioned above.  I think I sing better without it.

Side note: at yesterday’s orchestra rehearsal we wondered where Maestro was going to stand — the conductor’s podium wasn’t there, and a harpsichord was in the way.  Lo and behold, he perched himself at the harpsichord and played all of the recitative interludes himself!  I wonder if that makes it more authentic for a performance.  (As my wife pointed out, however, you can only get so authentic with a Japanese conductor and an American chorus.)  One thing’s for sure, it’s even more clear that Suzuki lives and breathes this piece, if he’s capable of conducting AND playing the interludes without missing a beat or a cue.

Home stretch… and then the marathon

We’re almost there!  (Here’s my memorization progress to date.)  Almost finished memorizing, and almost to the REAL rehearsals.  We have a fairly brutal rehearsal schedule, by TFC standards:

  • Friday night off-book, 7-9ish
  • Saturday with Mo. Suzuki, 1-3p, 4-6p
  • Sunday with Mo. Suzuki, 1-3p, 4-6p
  • Monday 1-4p with orchestra
  • Tuesday 9:30a-1p, 2-4p with orchestra
  • Wednesday 6:30-10 with orchestra
  • Performances Thursday, Friday, Saturday

What’s clear from this, given that we’ll be singing every single day for 9 days, is that pacing will be key.  That means singing properly, with support, and most importantly not over-singing.  It will be tempting to do so in order to be heard over the orchestra.  We just have to trust that Suzuki will rein in the orchestra volume to be appropriate for a chorus of 60.  After all, the BSO is used to 100-120 of us back there for most of our  concerts!

Despite the heavy schedule, I personally am finding excitement building for the long rehearsals with Suzuki.  A short article in the New Yorker praises Bach’s compositions (and basically calls Gardiner’s recordings the quintessential Bach to own) but highlights the Bach Collegium Japan and their recent performance of the B-Minor Mass at Carnegie Hall with 21 singers and 26 players.  He writes how baroque performances tend to be either very austere or overdone, but that Suzuki “follows a pragmatic middle path…. In interpretive style, he tends toward subtlety rather than flamboyance, avoiding the abrupt accents, florid ornaments, and freewheeling tempos that are fashionable in Baroque performance practice. He is strong on clarity and musicality, sometimes lacking in force.”  That sounds like a good preview of what to expect over the weekend and for the actual performances.

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Rehearsal last night kicked ass

Last night’s rehearsal was both narrator chorus and large chorus, for the first time since October.  It really made me even more excited about the piece.  We’re still fighting through some notes and rhythms here and there, but I think that was to be expected.  What’s really exciting to me is that we’re making the emotional connection with the piece, and that’s so very important for what’s essentially an opera rather than a tone poem or some sort of symphonic piece.

Our narrator chorus is particularly impressive.  I’m especially pleased with the way the sopranos sound, since they have to achieve these floating high notes with light texture in some places.  Some of the crazy lines the narrator chorus has to sing have exquisite ornamentals that really twist and turn, but they’re nailing them.  John Oliver joked about the tediousness of their narrator-chorus-only rehearsals: “Can you imagine, line after line of ‘And he said’, ‘And Jesus said,’ ‘And they said’ ?”  Putting it all together is a relief for both choruses.

As for memorization, I don’t think I saw anyone without the book in their hand.  I tried whenever possible to close the thing so I wouldn’t rely on it — technically it was our “off book” rehearsal, but ever since John Oliver and Sir Colin Davis made the decision to allow us to keep the scores on stage, no one’s been up tight about glances here and there.  It’s clear though that for some passages we NEED to be looking up to catch an accelerando or rallentando if we don’t want to get left behind.  For instance, at one point some of the women finished a particularly tough passage about 1 bar after the rest of the chorus.  John looked at them and said, “Oh, you must have the revised edition.”

Tomorrow we do the remaining movements and see where we’re at.  I feel like I have the whole piece down now (sort of), and could perform it shakily from memory at gunpoint if I had to.

Getting closer to MacMemorized…

Whew.  I’ve definitely got movements 1, 2, and 5 down, and I think I have 3 and 6 too.  I’m sure I can learn 8 quickly enough.

Now that we’ve found out that we can use the scores, I’m not worried about 4, which has slow stepwise movement for the basses, and 7, which is really all about the timing not the notes, and 9, which has an almost interminable pedal tone with words coming at varying, hard-to-predict moments.  The score will be REALLY helpful there for all of those, and a load off my mind.  (Though I’d still rather we be memorizing the whole piece… I certainly plan to do so.)

I’m proclaiming myself ready for the not-really-off-book off-book rehearsal tomorrow!

You are the rock

MacMillan progress: 1st and 2nd movements memorized (except for that crazy Peter’s denial nonsense, which I can’t for the life of me figure out), and most of the 3rd movement (I think I have all of Pilate’s lines down now in the 3rd movement as well as the “Hail, Hail” and “Crucify him”, but not the Judas conclusion. The rest is mostly still limping along.

Today I think I nailed the end of movement two, and I really like the subtext of this one.  Peter has just screwed up — he’s denied Jesus three times, and the cock has crowed (via a frantic trumpet-led arpeggiated lead-in).  This is where in most Passion readings you feel bad for Peter.  In St. Matthew’s Passion story, Peter goes out and weeps — Bach has his evangelist do this magnificent sobbing on the word “weinete” when Peter goes out and weeps bitterly (Und ging heraus und weinete bitterlich).

No such moping here.  Our text is about building up off of failures:

Tu es Petrus et super hance petram aedificabo ecclesiaum meam

Translation: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”  Rather than chide Peter for his failings, MacMillan chose text to remind Peter, and therefore all of us, that even though he has failed, he has great deeds ahead of him.  Pick yourself up!  Dust yourself off!  No matter what happens, you will be the foundation of my legacy on earth.

This is further emphasized by the music.  In a piece with tone clusters, glissandos, indeterminate pitches, occasional yelling, and some painful dissonances, for this entire piece the chorus is locked in strong, on the beat rhythms, in tonal chords.  There’s a bass pedal tone anchoring the whole thing through many of the measures, like a cornerstone on that foundation Petrus is creating for us.  Meanwhile the orchestra is dancing all over the place with crazy accented outbursts from the brass, tremolos from the strings building up intensity, a gong playing…  to me, it’s all the distractions, all the failures, all the things that can go wrong, all assailing that foundation trying to bring it down.  But Peter is the rock, the petram, and none of this stuff shakes the chorus’s foundation as we methodically build this choral church up to a fortissimo at the end.  And in a nice goose-bumpy touch, the organ comes blaring in at the end asserting this foundation on the same chord that we’ve just finished holding for a long three measures… saying YES THIS CHURCH IS HERE TO STAY with a final flourish.

I love this effect.  It’s a nice respite from all the sadness of the rest of the story.

The MacMillan off-book date is *gulp* WHEN?

The rehearsal schedule was rejiggered… and the off-book date was moved up.  To January 11th.  Yikes!  That’s not such a big move, but the reality of that date finally hit me.  That’s about three weeks away!

For the uninitiated, the TFC memorizes the music for all of its performances.  That’s always been one of the things I love about singing with the chorus, for two reasons.  First of all, it means you really get to know the music inside and out.  Secondly, it means most of the “work” of being the chorus is shouldered by the individual members on their own time and pace, rather than by grinding it out through weekly evening 2-3 hour rehearsals to work on notes together.  Typically the last piano rehearsal before we rehearse with the conductor on concert week is known as the “off-book” rehearsal.  You can have your music with you, but you’re expected to have it memorized by that point. 

There was a time when people didn’t take that off-book date too seriously.  We would make note cards with text on it as reminders, or little cheat sheets to get through some of the tough parts.  A few years ago John Oliver came down hard on that.  “Off book is off book,” he admonished us, specifically calling out note cards and cheat sheets as signs you were not ready.  Some of us still sneak a few notes or peeks at the music to confirm what we think we know.

This piece is certainly going to be one of the harder pieces we’ve had to memorize — though I’m told by most accounts that Moses und Aron, the Schoenberg opera, probably tops the list.  I expect we’ll have a lot of people sneaking peeks at music on January 11th.

Right.  January 11th.  Holy crap!  Did I mention that’s only about 3 weeks away?  I’ve been soaking up the music but I’ve only sat down and truly studied a few movements, trying to imprint both the notes and the text in my brain.  Time to step it up!

The Process of Memorizing New Music

As people familiar with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus know, about 95% of our performances are from memory.  A singing friend of mine asked me yesterday, “How do you guys do it?”  She wasn’t expressing disbelief or praise.  She really meant it.  What does one actually do to go about memorizing all these pieces when you have so few rehearsals?

My answer was almost automatic.  “50-60% aural, 20-30% visual, 10-20% touch/mechanics.” Growing up learning to play piano, I had to memorize every piece I learned, to the point where it was hard for me to be happy playing something if I hadn’t memorized it.  That quote was from my music teacher; she always told me that learning a piece was a mixture of those senses but that you definitely needed all three.  Most people focus on the visual (reading the music) and the mechanics (once you’ve played/sung something often enough, it becomes ingrained in your muscle memory.)  She emphasized this by having recording my playing and practicing so I could listen to myself.

So when it comes to learning these pieces, I usually get a hold of a recording as soon as possible and use that to begin the osmosis into my brain.  I start passively listening to it everywhere – on morning commutes, on business trips, sitting at my computer doing other things.  I say passively because I’m not studying the music, I’m just trying to get a feel for its character, its structure, where the chorus comes in, that sort of thing.

Now, smarter singers than I have specific preferences about which recordings they buy and listen to, but I’m cheap and not really a connoisseur: I’m quite happy with the recording the chorus manager supplies for us.  And John Oliver himself has said he rarely listens to the recordings, because he can sit with the score and hear it in his head (and therefore not be trapped into one particular interpretation and its dynamics or tempi.  Hey, I’m Just Another Bass.  I’m not that good.

At some point I will sit down with the recording and the music and walk through it together, preferably with a piano nearby to play out tough passages.  The goal is to the point where when I’m passively listening, I can follow along mentally because I know the notes and text.  That way I can turn those passive sessions into active sessions and transform otherwise worthless commute time into study time.

As the off-book rehearsal looms closer, I start to do things like “on this 30 minute drive, I’m not getting out of the car until I’ve memorized this passage.”  I’ll sing along with the music, sometimes turning it off to see if I can sing it without the musical prompts.  I’ll back up and play the same 4 bars again and again… then add another 4 bars… then try the next 8… then see if I remember the first 8… then jump to another part of the piece and listen… then go back to the part I’m learning and see if I’ve forgotten it.  Sure enough, by the time I’m walking from the parking lot to my office, I’ve generally got it in my head.  On the way home, the challenge is, is it still in my head?  So I repeat the process.

Sooner or later, there’s a moment of panic.  Uh-oh, the off-book rehearsal is soon, and I still don’t know the piece!  That will usually trigger several hours of at the piano work with the score, or continually running a section over and over again trying not to look at the music as I sing.  I will write note cards (visual and tactile) to help memorize tricky text portions and flip through those while I sing the notes.  Hopefully by the time the final piano rehearsal comes along I’m feeling dangerous enough to forego those note cards, as they’re a crutch that’s frowned upon during those memorized rehearsals.

Whether you are memorizing your music or not, I’m interested to hear – how do you learn music?